Zika to affect 3-4 million cases in US, WHO calls emergency meet on Feb 1

Geneva: Even as fears mount over the rapid spread of the dangerous Zika virus across the US, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday said that it expects the deadly mosquito-borne disease to affect between three million and four million people in the Americas.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that the disease had gone from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions, calling for an emergency meeting on the outbreak on February 1.

Marcos Espinal, an infectious disease expert at the WHO`s Americas regional office, said: “We can expect 3 to 4 million cases of Zika virus disease”. He gave no time frame.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which is a close cousin of dengue and chikungunya and causes mild fever, rash and red eyes. An estimated 80 percent of people infected have no symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to know whether they have been infected.

“The level of alarm is extremely high,” Chan told WHO executive board members at a meeting in Geneva. “As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the (Americas) region.”

Brazil`s Health Ministry said in November 2015 that Zika was linked to a foetal deformation known as microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads

Brazil has reported 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly, the WHO said last week, more than 30 times more than in any year since 2010 and equivalent to 1-2 percent of all newborns in the state of Pernambuco, one of the worst-hit areas.

Chan said that while a direct causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations has not yet been established, it is “strongly suspected”.

“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions,” she said.

US President Barack Obama has called for faster research on the quick-moving virus, which has been linked to a rise in birth defects in Brazil.

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said on Thursday that the hunt for a vaccine to prevent the Zika virus could take years.

(With Agency inputs)